Advice for Writers: 10 Takeaways from John Gardner’s “On Becoming a Novelist”
“A wise and honest assessment of what it is like and what is necessary to become a writer and stay a writer.” (Raymond Carver)
John Gardner was a novelist with an obsession for literary workmanship and a belief in the power of art to enrich life. He wrote fourteen novels and story collections, as well as poetry, children’s books, literary criticism, translations of medieval poetry, and two books on writing. He taught at Oberlin, San Francisco State, Southern Illinois University (Carbondale), and Binghamton, and he was a popular teacher at Bread Loaf. Gardner was born in 1933; he died in 1982, at the age of 49, in a motorcycle accident.
“Fine workmanship … workmanship, in short, that impresses us with its painstaking care, gives pleasure and a sense of life’s worth and dignity not only to the reader but to the writer as well.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
On Becoming a Novelist was published after Gardner’s death. He wrote it after twenty years of writing and teaching, essentially as an FAQ. He assumes the reader is “an intensely serious beginning novelist who wants the strict truth” about how to pursue the life of a novelist. Gardner also assumes a reader who wants to write “serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive.” His main objective is to identify and assuage “the beginning novelist’s worries” — that is, to give reassurance, helpful guidance, and encouragement.
Gardner was born in 1933, and his career covered the 1960s and ’70s. Hence, much of his advice on publishing is obsolete, so I’ve omitted most of that. Also dated is his usage of pronouns. Apologies for all the he’s and him’s in the quotes.
The book takes four parts: I. The Writer’s Nature, II. The Writer’s Training and Education, III. Publication and Survival, and IV. Faith.
“This book tries to give honest reassurance by making plain what the life of a novelist is like; what the novelist needs to guard against, inside himself and outside; what he can reasonably expect and what, in general, he cannot. It is a book that celebrates novel-writing and encourages the reader to give it a try if he or she is seriously so inclined.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
A novelist needs verbal sensitivity, an accurate “eye,” certain kinds of intelligence, and compulsiveness (plus, ideally, stubbornness, common sense, and a fascination for the “materials” of fiction).
Verbal sensitivity means a “sharp ear — and eye — for language.” It doesn’t necessarily translate into good grades in English or into what other people might perceive as “good English.” It means a “gift for finding or (sometimes) inventing authentically interesting language.” But a writer who cares more about language than about story probably won’t succeed as a novelist — they will likely produce work that’s called “mannered”, drawing the reader’s attention away from the story and to the author.
The writer’s “eye” is the ability to see the world clearly. For some writers, that means self-understanding — seeing their own inner experiences and qualities clearly. (These writers tend to use the first person, expressing a personal vision.) For other writers, it means accuracy in observing people.
“The good writer sees things sharply, vividly, accurately, and selectively (that is, he chooses what’s important), not necessarily because his power of observation is by nature more acute than that of other people (though by practice it becomes so), but because he cares about seeing things clearly and getting them down effectively.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
By “intelligence,” Gardner means a combination of qualities that’s hard to describe, often including irreverence, mischievousness, and rebellion against the way people usually see and understand things. These qualities can lead writers to seem childish or rude. According to Gardner, novelists also tend to possess patience, “psychological instability,” “recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence,” and an “incurable addiction to stories,” along with strong feelings against bad writing. The writer’s intelligence should include enough common sense to be able to recognize an interesting idea.
“No novelist is hurt (at least as an artist) by a natural inclination to go to extremes, driving himself too hard, dissatisfied with himself and the world around him and driven to improve on both if he can.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
The novelist needs compulsiveness and driven-ness because of the challenges of the craft. Writing takes tremendous focus on perfecting details as well as on making the larger elements of a book work. The writer has to be able to labor over revision after revision and stay with the project through times of feeling lost or stuck. And novelists have to be able to see this process through even though they often lack confidence or certainty that the effort is worth it. Stubbornness will help the writer persist in her own way and walk away from bad advice.
“I think there is really no other way to write a long, serious novel. You work, shelve it for a while, work, shelve it again, work some more, month after month, year after year…” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
A writer who doesn’t already have these qualities can develop them, for the most part.
To develop sensitivity to language, you can get a really good freshman composition book and study style, diction, and syntax (sentence structure). Use a dictionary to build your vocabulary. Read both good and bad fiction and pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t, and why.
“If the promising writer keeps on writing — writes day after day, month after month — and if he reads very carefully, he will begin to ‘catch on.’” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
You can sharpen your “eye” by finding your own way to develop understanding of people, whether that’s by studying astrology (not because you believe it works, but because it offers lots of observations on personalities and behavior), reading psychological case studies, or some other way that works for you. Understanding that the effectiveness of fiction depends on accurate detail can motivate you to become observant.
“What one has to get, one way or another, is insight — not just knowledge — into personalities not visibly like one’s own.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
The novelist’s forms of intelligence can often be developed. Compulsiveness will help the writer get to the finish line, but it isn’t indispensable — there are other ways of doing it.
“Originality is normally a quality achieved by diligence, not a natural condition.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Becoming a novelist, versus other professions or other kinds of writing, presents special difficulties.
“The whole world seems to conspire against the young novelist.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Becoming a novelist is difficult mainly because it takes so long to develop the skills of writing novels, it takes so long to complete each work, and it can take even longer to be published. Meanwhile, one receives little reassurance — and much skepticism and doubt. People generally think of professional writers as glamorous beings and can hardly imagine that you could qualify.
“Nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
The novelist has to learn to protect their ego and develop sources of psychological support. The novelist has to be “directed by inner forces, not daily or monthly bursts of applause.” Even later in their career, novelists can suffer from a lack of confidence. Gardner notes, “After twenty published books, I still often ask myself if I’m really a writer.”
“Because his art is such a difficult one, the writer is not likely to advance in the world as visibly as do his neighbors; while his best friends from high school or college are becoming junior partners in prestigious law firms, or opening their own mortuaries, the writer may be still sweating out his first novel.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Good fiction creates a “continuous dream” (called the fictive dream), and its qualities include storytelling, generosity, significance, elegance, and strangeness.
When we read good fiction, we forget where we are and enter a kind of dream state that seems real. Good writing makes the dream vivid, and bad writing interrupts the dream or makes it unpleasant or boring. Distractions in the writing (such as inaccuracies) will prevent the dream from being continuous. Detail and specificity make the dream more vivid.
“Detail is the lifeblood of fiction.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Writing that’s generous is “complete and self-contained” and doesn’t play games with the reader or demand that the reader bring background or special knowledge to the work. Generous writing doesn’t withhold information in a misguided attempt to create interest or suspense.
Good fiction can be entertaining, and writers who study literature need to be careful to maintain their own perspective on what’s good and bad writing, and not surrender to literary elitism.
“The first quality of good storytelling is storytelling.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
In Gardner’s view, good fiction features a series of events in cause-effect relationships; dramatized (not merely asserted) motives on the part of characters; interplay of setting, character, and action; rhythm in the plot; a structured narrative; and integration of style, plot, and meaning. The archetype of desire, effort that meets opposition, and conclusion underlies practically all plots. Exceptions exist.
“In the best fiction, plot is not a series of surprises but an increasingly moving series of recognitions, or moments of understanding.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Formal education can help the novelist but isn’t indispensable.
A person doesn’t need formal education to have the qualities needed for writing fiction. There are pluses to avoiding some of the negative influences of higher education. However, by studying literature at the college level, a novelist can learn about the range of possible ways of telling stories and get an idea of the effects that can be achieved. Courses that focus on close reading of great works help the most. Survey courses aren’t as useful.
“Writing ability, however improvable by teaching, is in large part a gift. If one cannot get to college, one need not despair of being a writer.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Studying philosophy can sharpen the writer’s appreciation for significance — that is, the ability to choose important subjects. Many serious novelists have studied science, and some, but not all, went on to write speculative fiction. A college degree can also give a novelist options in ways to make a living.
“It’s the sheer act of writing, more than anything else, that makes a writer.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Studying creative writing in school can help a beginning novelist develop a sense of identity and belongingness as a writer. There, you can begin to develop a community and find social support. And talking about writing with other writers can inspire you to write more.
The “lone writer” is a myth — the “lone writers” of the past generally weren’t very good writers. And the great writers of the past who seemed to be self-taught, or claimed to be (such as Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, for example), in fact had networks and communities of writers, mentors, and teachers.
Often, the best creative writing teachers aren’t writers themselves. Avoid workshops that allow people to attack each other or where the teacher pressures students to write the same way they do. Workshops for short story writers and poets probably won’t serve a beginning novelist well.
“In the usual creative writing course, the potentially fine young novelist may even look rather dull.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Beginning novelists need social and psychological support.
The difficulties involved in learning to write novels and then writing them, the scarcity of successes in the early stages, and the necessity of having some level of confidence in order to be able to write all mean that the novelist desperately needs social support. Summer conferences are good places to meet other writers and develop your community. Once you have an agent, the agent can provide valuable support. Publishing short pieces can give you confidence boosts.
“It cannot be too strongly emphasized that, after the beginning stages, a writer needs social and psychological support.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
For the beginning novelist, the main value of publication is that it gives confidence.
Learning how publishing works is a matter of self-preservation. Learning about publishing is important mainly because it will help you keep certain parts of the process in perspective. With an understanding of how editing works and what factors influence acceptance and rejection, you can minimize damage to your confidence and avoid taking suggestions and criticisms more seriously than you should. A major benefit of becoming published is that it will increase your confidence and the authority with which you write.
“Students need confidence to write at all, and respectable publication is one of the roads to confidence.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
Novelists should face the fact that they will probably never earn a living from their writing.
There’s nothing wrong with hoping to earn money from writing fiction — good art can result from the desire to make money. But novelists should understand that their work will probably never support them, and if this isn’t okay, they should give up being a novelist.
“No motive is too low for art; finally it’s the art, not the motive, that we judge.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
It’s hard to find a job that doesn’t interfere with writing. Journalism can hurt one’s prose style, and teaching writing can cause you to become too analytical or overly focused on theory. Some writers try moving abroad, where the cost of living is lower, but they frequently find that living outside their home culture weakens their writing. Writers can sometimes get support from foundation grants. Ideally, you’ll have a generous spouse or lover who will support you — but if this causes shame or guilt, it can be detrimental to your writing.
“Our culture teaches none of its false lessons more carefully than it teaches that one should never be dependent.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
The basic process of writing is to enter a kind of trance, where you visualize the events of the story and then write them down.
It’s like entering an alternate reality. And writing down the words doesn’t pull you out of the dream; instead, the words help you stay in the dream and re-enter it when you lose it. Later on, you go back and rewrite the words to make the vision clearer, more vivid, and more alive.
“In the writing state — the state of inspiration — the fictive dream springs up fully alive.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
The writer’s main task is to learn to enter this state at will — usually, you have to grope and experiment to figure out how to make it happen — and then to do whatever is necessary to preserve your ability to produce it. Otherwise, you have to resort to writing by “mere intellect,” which is a struggle.
“It is this experience of tapping into some magic source that makes the writer an addict, willing to give up almost anything for his art.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
No matter what means you use to get words onto paper — typing, handwriting, etc. — it can be distracting and pull you out of the dream. The words themselves can be distracting. The real problem is that one part of you is full of self-doubt.
When you get stuck because you’ve become self-conscious or hampered by self-doubt, the cure is to “Have faith.” Remind yourself that writing is very difficult, but you can do it. Break the work down to small parts and work iteratively. You will get better as it as you continue to do it.
“Recognize that the art of writing is immensely more difficult than the beginning writer may at first believe but in the end can be mastered by anyone willing to do the work.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
The need for faith is one reason writers so desperately depend on social support and encouragement. Faith also arises from “the writer’s selfless love of his art.” Enjoying writing and knowing that it’s worthwhile can help you set aside your doubts. Writers have used various methods to disinhibit themselves, such as alcohol. Gardner observes that these are no substitute for “hard work and occasional successes.” In his own practice, Gardner favors autohypnosis.
“Fiction, like sculpture or painting, begins with a rough sketch.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
When you begin a project, have a plan. You might choose to flesh out the plan into a treatment or a chapter breakdown. Then work on one element at a time and perfect it. Last, polish the whole work. Trust that if you have the skills and have learned to produce the writing state, and if you’re willing to do an immense amount of work, you’ll be able to produce a good piece of fiction and publish it. If you really want to write, don’t quit.
“Writing a novel is like heading out over the open sea in a small boat.” (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist)
If you’ve found value in these takeaways, I highly recommend you read the whole book. It’s full of similar insights and observations about the life of a novelist, the process of writing, and craft. On Becoming a Novelist is in print as a paperback and available on Kindle, but it’s also fairly easy to find used.
John Gardner also wrote The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers.